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Military Register Custer's Last Command

By Roger Williams

Book Review by Bob Reece, November 2009


ďÖdetermining with certainty the exact status of many troopers, in the absence of pertinent records no longer extant, has proven an insurmountable task.Ē

Preface, Military Register of Custerís Last Command

 

Roger L. Williamsí contribution to George Custer and the Battle of the Little Bighorn is not a narrative on that battle; instead it is an encyclopedic record on the lives of the officers, soldiers, scouts, and civilians who made up the 7th Cavalry. If you purchase this book hoping to gain more knowledge of Custerís Last Stand, you will be solely disappointed.

Mr. Williams bears huge risks venturing into the enigmatic void besieged by those who marched and died with Custer; this abyss has been filled with countless errors from the very beginning when in 1939 Edward Luce published Keogh, Comanche, and Custer; which included a roster of the 7th Cavalry. In 1972 Kenneth Hammer published Biographies of the 7th Cavalry and even with its mistakes, it is still the main reference used by the interpretive staff at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument for biographical information on Custerís soldiers.

As noted in the Introduction by Mr. Williams, ďPrimary source material presented herein includes an outline of the military career of each 7th Cavalryman on the regimental roll in June 1876, with several newly discovered names; the date and place each man joined the regiment; all known pension file numbers; personal file numbers of each commissioned officer; new details from the career of General Custer; new information on the African American interpreter Isaiah Dorman, the veterinary surgeon Charles A. Stein, and numerous other individuals with the command, including the somewhat enigmatic citizen packers employed with the expeditions.Ē Mr. Williams does not just focus on the members of the 7th Cavalry who marched in the Sioux/Cheyenne War of 1876, but additionally he includes a record of the members of the 7th Cavalry from the Washita to Wounded Knee.

Future historians will appreciate Mr. Williams publishing, for the first time, the 400-plus pension-file and personal-file numbers for Custerís soldiers. They will also value the extensive discussion of the 7th Cavalry troop strength in the Battle of the Little Bighorn. Mr. Williams' analysis of the countless sources that attempt to resolve this question will quickly become the most important reference for this unfathomable answer.

Military Register also includes: the complete roster of the 7th Cavalry with tables that break down the demographics of each company including the band; Lt. Varnumís detachment of Indian Scouts including Varnumís letter of February 4, 1877 forwarding the muster roll to the Adjutant General; list of wounded from June 25-26, 1876; statistical tables for horses of each company; and extensive material on the Pack Train of June 25, 1876.

The weakest links -- and these are minor -- in this otherwise strong chain of material are the abbreviations and over-extensive endnotes. Abbreviations inhibit this 429-page book from morphing into several volumes; however, you might bookmark page 23 to access the Abbreviations section for quick reference. Reading these biographies packed mostly with abbreviations is a bit arduous at first, but you will discover soon enough that you flip back and forth less as you read further. Mr. Williams has most definitely referenced his masterpiece very well. Any student wanting to investigate points made by Mr. Williams or a particular soldier will have no problem finding the source material; however, one will find unnecessary endnotes. How important is it to know the 1876 arrival times for trains to Bismarck, Dakota Territory? There is no doubt that Mr. Williams work is too important for these weak points to prevent the serious student from its use.

Most important, Mr. Williams expands on Mr. Hammerís book throughout. If you own a copy of Biographies of the 7th Cavalry and wonder if you would benefit by adding Military Register of Custerís Last Command to your library, the answer is most definitely yes! Not only that, Military Registerís impressive work stands well above Hammer's Biographies and most likely will become the primary reference of Custerís soldiers. Military Register of Custerís Last Command is the most needed critical update to Hammerís book and should be the newest dog-eared edition seen on the desks of the Chief Historian and Chief of Interpretation at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument.

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